Before I went to Tanzania to teach for a year in a village secondary school, I thought extreme poverty was the same as destitution. My image of poverty in Africa came from "starving children" commercials and glossy magazine ads showing dirty, distraught-looking faces. The fallacy of that image did not fully strike me until an African friend asked me not to photograph dirty children for show in America. He objected because he believed Americans would misinterpret their dirtiness as a sign of neglect, degradation, and want. Although children in the village near where I lived are poor and often dirty, neither they nor their parents are destitute.
Destitution is living without what's needed for human dignity. When Americans see people who lack the things we think they need to maintain self-respect, we see destitute people. But our typical concept of what comprises a dignified life has been formed with little knowledge of life in the developing world.
The poor in Tanzania live without excess, but not without dignity. Homes are small and constructed of mud bricks and straw. Clothes are few and well-worn. Ugali, a dough-like substance of maize flour and water, makes up the bulk of almost every meal. Yet Tanzanian villagers living on pennies a day practice generosity and hospitality. They maintain codes of interpersonal courtesy as intricate as those of the British court. They are individuals with complicated personalities, intelligence, and humor.
Poverty, I have learned, is not necessarily destitution, but neither is it a state to be glamorized or perpetuated. These poor people have dignity proceeding from their humanity, but many suffer from ignorance-ignorance that can unnecessarily lower living standards and even cause death. Children living in villages full of nutritious, if mundane, foods sometimes die of kwashiorkor because their mothers do not know the importance of a protein-rich diet for recently weaned children. Diseases such as cholera spread quickly and kill many because people do not grasp the need for proper sanitation and basic health-care techniques such as rehydration.
Ignorance devastates health and severely limits self-determination. Vibrant Tanzanian children who could become teachers, doctors, and leaders in the public and private sectors remain trapped on poor farms because the government has no room for them in its few secondary schools. Poor children who fail to stand out strongly by the end of 7th grade have few educational options and little professional opportunity.
In Tanzania, the lack of post-primary education is phenomenal. Yet the desire for education is so strong and the Tanzanian culture so hard-working that the promise of collaboration and guidance is enough to set an entire village to work building its own school with a minimum of outside funding. Village Schools International, a Christian group fighting the trend of handout-minded aid, is racing to keep up with the demand from villagers who want to work with missionaries to bring secondary education to local children. Parents and future students willingly provide construction labor when VSI promises to help them turn buildings into well-staffed, government-accredited schools. I cannot feel sorry for those who strive for what I was merely given. They demand my respect.
Since living in Tanzania, I have stopped pitying the poor. Instead, I have started to care about them. My relatively short time in Tanzania was long enough for me to begin to see village life for what it is-and what it is not. I began to see beyond the tiny mud homes, the ragged clothing, and the dirt on the faces of the many children playing in the village street. In the past, these images had encouraged me to view the poor as objects of pity who seemed utterly different from me. I now understand that we are similar, but I have been given the privilege of an education that for most Tanzanian villagers is still beyond reach. I no longer see the poor in terms of their lack of material possessions. I see them in terms of their unrealized potential.
-Prisca Shrewsbury is entering law school at the University of Virginia